This week, the Government published the rules that will apply to the elections in November of Police and Crime Commissioners for England and Wales. Among other obscure things (who the returning officer is, how the ballot is conducted and so on) they lay out exactly how much someone can spend on their election campaign. The figures are quite amazing. The candidates for West Midlands can spend a whopping £357,435, Greater Manchester £356,204, Sussex £219,983 and Thames Valley £303,303. Even candidates for Dyfed Powys can look to spend up to £72,622. These are phenomenal sums for an individual or party to have to find, on top of other election campaigns. But what is disturbing is that the Government has decided in its infinite wisdom that, unlike other elections, candidates will not even be entitled to a free delivery of a leaflet. Now money is scarce and the public purse has more than enough demands on it, but the real problem is that yet again we may see elections where the wealthy can dip into their own pockets and vastly outspend an ordinary member of the public. Democracy for sale is bad enough, but policing for sale gives me the collywobbles.
There's another point, though. For originally the Government wanted to force a swathe of towns and cities to have elected mayors without so much as a by your leave, and only held referendums when Labour put pressure on them. We all know the result; this May elected mayors were rejected in Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle, and only Bristol accepted the Government's recommendation.
My suspicion is that exactly the same fate would befall a referendum on these Police and Crime Commissioners, which is why the Government is not holding one. Of course Labour will put forward candidates, not least because, at a time when the Government is enforcing cuts of 16,000 police officers, the priorities of the local police service matter enormously to voters. I'm keen, for instance, that Paul Cannon – who spent 30 years in the police, was awarded the Queen's Police Medal and is now a Labour councillor – becomes the Commissioner for the South Wales Police. But I detect no enthusiasm in the wider public for these elections. It's a daft American-style idea and the cost of these elections (and the £65-£100,000 per annum salary each) could be much better spent on additional police.
Where will MPs go as refugees?
The Palace of Westminster shows her splendours to all with a magnificent pinnacled riverfront, splendidly decorated furniture, wallpaper that makes you go dizzy and brass knobs aplenty. But behind the scenes things are rather more workaday. Above the central lobby is a great illuminated dome with beautiful mosaics. But above the dome and behind "no entry" signs lies another world of dust and debris – and deep in the bowels of the palace things are even worse. For the old Victorian ventilation shafts are now packed full of high-voltage electrical cables, telephone lines, and iron central-heating pipes carrying steam – all wrapped up in asbestos. There's no plan of what cable leads where, so sometimes the contractors just cut one through to see who complains at the other end.
The problem is this is all unsustainable – an 1834-style fire waiting to happen – and while the rusting cast-iron roof panels can be steadily replaced under a great scaffolding canopy without disturbing the whole of Parliament, this underground problem needs more radical surgery. Which is why the palace authorities are not only considering an urgent refit but also moving us all out. Even our seemingly interminable summer recesses are not long enough for a task of this magnitude and any stop-start programme would almost certainly cost far more than moving us out for between three and five years. Places being quietly canvassed include Oxford (where Parliament last sat in 1681), Birmingham, or rather more prosaically Church House or the QEII centre across the road from the Commons, both of which would involve us sitting in a hemisphere rather than opposite each other. Now that would be a worthwhile experiment in itself, but I would hate to arrange the placement. Would Nick sit between Ed and Dave or to the right?
I'm still betting on Engelbert
Wednesday night saw the annual British Phonographic Industry gig on a boat at Westminster Pier, featuring not just the intrepid band MP4 (which consists of Ian Cawsey, Kevin Brennan, Pete Wishart and Greg Knight), but the soulful Maverick Sabre (I'm far too old to have heard of him) and Leicester's legend Engelbert Humperdinck, who sent Leicester's still fairly new MP Jonathan Ashworth into rhapsodies and, incidentally, was born in the same week in 1936 as Glenda Jackson. Some of my colleagues rather cruelly worried that Mr H may lose out to the swirling Russian grannies in Baku next Saturday, but I have more faith.
All kinds of confusion
Years ago I drafted a speaking note for the then BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, who was hosting a dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Broadcasting Union, which runs Eurovision. I wrote for him: "Eurovision has not only given us all those great songs, but two Members of the European Parliament as well: Nana Mouskouri and Rosemary Scallon, known as Dana." (Nana, in case you were wondering, sang for Luxembourg in 1963 and Dana for Ireland in 1970.) As was his wont, Sir Christopher "corrected" my draft, ending instead, "Rosemary Scallon, also known as Dana International". Everyone nodded gently. I was the only person who knew that he had mixed up the fiercely Catholic Irish woman who had won the contest with the prim "All Kinds of Everything" with the brash Israeli transsexual.